word of mouth

Too old for comfort? Jack Cunningham, Margaret Beckett and Lord Irvine do not qualify for a higher education loan because of age
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The Independent Online
Too old for loans

This isadult learners' week. I should have thought that, following the Government's Lifelong Learning policy, the entire year would be devoted to adult learners. But then, nothing is ever what it seems. Take the many men and women aged 50-plus who are about to take (or be made to take) early retirement or voluntary redundancy and who wish to spend their new- found leisure studying for a degree. Unlike younger students, they cannot benefit from a loan, let alone a grant. Dr Kim Howells, Lifelong Learning Minister, now says a "consultation paper" on lifelong learning has "invited views on extending loans to those in their early 50s who wish to enter higher education". Consultations? Lifelong learning should mean just that: learning throughout life, not just until you hit that ceiling of 50. Under the present clapped-out rules, more than half the Cabinet couldn't get a loan. Deputy PM John Prescott is 59; Robin Cook, our Foreign Secretary, is 52; Lord Irvine, Lord Chancellor, is 57; even Jack Straw, our beloved Home Secretary, is "past it" - he's 51. Then at the Board of Trade there's dear Margaret Beckett, 55; Jack Cunningham at Ag, Fish and Food and Health Secretary Frank Dobson are both a ripe 58. As for poor David Blunkett, he'll be 51 next month.

Dons and Donnas

Shortly before the Association of University Teachers decided last week to name and shame universities and colleges that have few, if any, female professors on their books, the University of Surrey appointed its first- ever woman professor of engineering. And King's College, London University, named the Baroness Rawlings as its chairman of Council. There are only five professors of electrical engineering in the UK and Dr Maria Petrou is now one of them. Her appointment brings Surrey's proportion of women profs to 14 per cent. Across the nation, the figure is a mere 8.5 per cent. As for Lady Rawlings, 59, (Patricia Rawlings as was) she takes over the King's Council chair from Sir James Spooner, who has held the post since 1986. It is strange,though, that when more than half the UK's undergrads are women, men still dominate senior academic positions. According to the AUT survey, 20 out of the country's 178 higher education institutions have not a single woman don - or donna. Even at senior lecturer level, 83.4 per cent are male. Women vice-chancellors can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And it's no good telling me that women don't apply for top jobs. They do. But they rarely make it to the short list. As WoM readers know, the AUT has a woman president - Penny Holloway. "The kid gloves are off," she said last week. Now there's fightin' talk.

In the Pink

Cambridge is without doubt a city of great beauty and the highest scholarship. But I have always found it lacking in top quality restaurants. Oh, there are plenty of eateries and even one or two worth a second visit. I haven't sampled enough college fare to be dogmatic (but the few I have tasted left much to be desired). All this is about to change when the university relaunches its very own restaurant, The Riverside, in the summer. Steven Saunders, known to quite a few square eyes as the star of television's Ready, Steady, Cook, has been retained as consultant to make sure that menus maintain a gourmet standard. Saunders owns The Pink Geranium (1995 Restaurant of the Year) and Sheen Mill in Melbourn (no, not a spelling mistake for that place in Oz, but a somewhat smaller town some 10 miles outside Cambridge). At present The Riverside is open to dons, students and paying conference customers. But from the summer, it will take bookings from Joe and Joan Public. If you go, ask for a window table. The restaurant is on the first floor of the University Centre and has sensational views across the mill pond at the end of Mill Lane.

Levelling A-levels

Those obsessed with league tables still believe A-levels to be the "gold standard", and that if you've managed three of them at a high grade, you'll end up with a super degree. It ain't necessarily so. I have long suspected that GCSE results are probably better predictors of the class of degree. Ron McDougall, management information co-ordinator of the University of East London, decided to look at last summer's 2,436 graduates and found that of those who entered the university without "conventional qualifications" (ie A-levels), 7.6 per cent were awarded first-class degrees. This compares with only 4.8 per cent of those with A-levels. Dr McDougall found a similar outcome among those with upper seconds: 65.8 per cent had come without formal qualifications, while 42.6 per cent came armed with A-levels. More than half UEL entrants are mature students and do not require the same formal qualifications as school leavers. Mind you, Dr McDougall did not specify what grade A-levels were flourished at entry. Still, it's worth pursuing this piece of research at other universities, including the "older" ones.

More gremlins

What is it with those gremlins? They even managed to slip into last week's story on how satisfied students are with Ucas, the universities' admissions service. I clearly said that nearly 90 per cent - that's right, ninety - found the service efficient. But those little rascals changed it to "nearly 10 per cent". What nonsense. Why, Ucas has just been nominated for a Charter Mark - the Cabinet Office's educational Oscar, another sure sign of its high quality. So, sackcloth and ashes all round

And finally ...

As we settle down for this year's GCSE exams, we may expect the usual crop of howlers. Wye College, London University's beautiful agricultural campus at Ashford, Kent, has harvested a few from religious education papers set on the other side of the Pond: "The people who followed the Lord were called the 12 decibels." "The epistles were the wives of the apostles." And: "St Matthew was by profession a taximan."